Blues Guitar Thingy Nomenclature
February 21, 2005 7:13 PM   Subscribe

Wondering if there's a name for a little guitar trick I've noticed in old blues records.

I'm not a musician, and a relatively casual fan of the blues, but I noticed that in the wonderful Library of Congress Blind Willie McTell recording today, sometimes, especially when he's repeating a phrase, he'll take out the words and play the vocal melody of that phrase on guitar.

This is a pretty terrible description, but the reason why I'm asking is to see if there's a term for this little flourish. I can try to explain better if my meaning is especially unclear.
posted by ITheCosmos to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Isn't that just using a vox box? Like Richie Sambora does and Peter Frampton too, it's called a "talking guitar" I think.
posted by riffola at 7:20 PM on February 21, 2005

Not at all like that. Blind Willie McTell didn't have any pedals.

Willie Nelson does it a lot on that album of standards he did, I can't remember the title. (Actually, what he does is play the vocal melody for his solo. I don't know if there's a term for what you're describing but I'm pretty sure I've heard Robert Johnson do it too.)
posted by kenko at 7:34 PM on February 21, 2005

Dunno what it's called, but I know exactly what you mean. McTell does it in "Razor Ball," among others. It's fantastic - one of my favorite things about his playing, which is more or less the best ever.
Charley Patton does it often, too, notably on "Hang it on the Wall." Maybe this will help someone identify what (if anything) this is called?
posted by Dr. Wu at 7:39 PM on February 21, 2005

Hendrix used this technique a lot too, without a vocal input. I've never heard a term for it.
posted by mwhybark at 7:49 PM on February 21, 2005

I don't really think "it" has a name. I'm unfamiliar with the particular recordings that have been referenced, but from the sounds of it, it's simply the musician stating the melody of the song. It sounds like a cool effect...

On preview: what mwhybark said. It's a pretty common practice in improvisations, to reference the melody of the song that you are playing with varying degrees of interpretation. Not just guitar, either - Miles Davis did it better than anyone, for my money.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 7:58 PM on February 21, 2005

If the player is singing a line and then playing the line on their instrument, 'call and response with guitar' wouldn't be a bad way to describe it. Of course, call-and-response isn't limited to repeating the vocal melody so it's not as descriptive as would be ideal. However, if someone handed me a chart with the notation "call and response with vocalist," I wouldn't have a problem playing it.

For what it's worth, I've been playing guitar and other instruments for a good long while now and have never heard of a specific term applied to what you're describing.
posted by stet at 8:07 PM on February 21, 2005

My guitar hero, Bob Mould, frequently uses the melody lines of his songs as the basis for his solos and instrumental breaks.
posted by mzurer at 8:28 PM on February 21, 2005

Yes, there is a term for it. I remember it once was used in a guitar magazine to describe Cobain's solo in "Come As You Are" (I think that's the song.)
posted by mischief at 8:42 PM on February 21, 2005

Best answer: Recapitulation!

Originally, that term was used to describe the third movement in a sonata (which repeated the theme), however it apparently has taken on this more generalized meaning in modern music.

(I knew I would come up with it as soon as I hit "Post".)
posted by mischief at 8:46 PM on February 21, 2005

I think I know what you're talking about but I have no idea if it has a name. Albert Collins did a bit on one of his live albums that he called "Two Drunks in a Bar". He would then play his guitar in such a way as that he was playing the melody of the conversation itself, in this case an argument. You could roughly follow the coversation by his phrasing and imitation of the pitch of the voices. As I remember "F**k you, Motherf****r" was really easy pick out(no pun intended). As a side question, does anyone know what album this is from?
posted by ttrendel at 8:53 PM on February 21, 2005

Ah, ITheCosmos, that's my favorite trick of McTell's!
To explain a bit more for those who aren't quite getting the question: it's not just imitating the sound of voices or the rhythm of conversation. Blind Willie sings a line over his picking. Then when repeats the line, he'll stop singing halfway through and just play the notes that went under the words the first time, so your brain fills in the rest.
You can hear the effect a little on the mp3 samples here (try "I Got to Cross The River Jordan" for the clearest example).
posted by hippugeek at 8:56 PM on February 21, 2005

Response by poster: Hippugeek, that's exactly the song I was thinking of. And michief gets the gold star, but I'm looking forward to checking out the songs everyone else has mentioned.

Um, except for "Come As You Are"
posted by ITheCosmos at 9:06 PM on February 21, 2005

Blind Willie Johnson also does this.. but a little more free-form, more like saying some words, and letting them trail off into Glenn Gouldesque Petite Mal groaning, with the slide playing taking up the slack. "Dark was the night, Cold was the ground" is a shining example of his playing.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 9:23 PM on February 21, 2005

"Then when repeats the line, he'll stop singing halfway through and just play the notes that went under the words the first time"

Hold up, then. This is, as stet said, call and response.

Recapitulation is when the guitarist plays the vocal melody as an actual solo.
posted by mischief at 9:23 PM on February 21, 2005

Without digging through the crates, I'd feel comfortable saying there is by far much more call and response in accoustic blues than strict recapitulatiion. It seems like most players stick to one of two schools, method oriented (Blind Willie McTell), where the picking patterns and turnarounds would dictate a break, or "air music" as Robert Pete Williams called it, letting go, ala Lightning Slim, John Lee Hooker. Though both of those guys got a little crazier with their fingers as they grew older.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 9:40 PM on February 21, 2005

On a quasi-related note, I just want to chime in and say that Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" is one of the great masterpieces of American music, and should be heard by everyone.
posted by Dr. Wu at 11:07 PM on February 21, 2005

Also check out old Mississippi Fred McDowell who used this perhaps more than anyone else.

The cannonical example is "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning". Also see: "Wished I was in Heaven Sitting Down" and "Lord Have Mercy" .
posted by cadastral at 11:40 PM on February 21, 2005

Also: Dr. Wu:

"Dark Was the Night" is one of the songs on the famed golden record that left our solar system with the Voyager Spacecraft... (which might one day radically increase the scope and meaning of "heard by everyone")
posted by cadastral at 11:46 PM on February 21, 2005

Golden Record.
posted by mds35 at 7:01 AM on February 22, 2005

We musicians have lots of ways of describing it, usually something like "echoing the vocal line." It exists in lots of musical cultures: listen to some old Greek rebetika, or Turkish music, indian music, Juju music from Nigeria. Mississippi John Hurt and Bukka White were masters of it.
posted by zaelic at 7:46 AM on February 22, 2005

I would note that Weezer does this a lot in their guitar solos. My personal thought is that it's a bit of a cop-out in the rock genre to play a solo that follows the vocal melody. But, sometimes it can be fun in an ironically hip way.
posted by quadog at 10:47 AM on February 22, 2005

I disagree with the use of "recapitulation" here. That term is still used to describe a section of a larger piece in which an earlier theme is repeated, but it wouldn't be used to simply describe a melodic echo.

The term in question here is "imitation." Originally applied to contrapuntal music, i.e. "imitative counterpoint." A fugue is a type of imitative counterpoint, because as each subsequent voice enters it imitates the main theme.

Imitation as a general compositional term is any musical gesture in one part being echoed in a different part.

Call and response works as well, although the two parts in a call and response aren't necessarily the same; in call and response, sometimes one part is the "call" and the other part plays something different, "answering" the call.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:37 PM on February 22, 2005

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